History or The Future?

sub-buzz-31869-1535765162-5CHEMNITZ, Germany — It didn’t take long for the rumors to spread.

Just hours after a man was stabbed in a small east German city last weekend, thousands of people began sharing accounts on social media that he had been killed by immigrants involved in a rape attempt. Within no time, it was being said there were two dead. Pictures were shared of a group of women said to have been beaten by immigrants.

It didn’t matter that there was no attempted rape, or that much of the rest of these accounts wasn’t true. The anger soon transferred to the real world. Over the next few days, Chemnitz, a town of around 250,000 people in the state of Saxony, would become the center of anti-immigrant protests that produced shocking images of people raising Hitler salutes, and mobs chasing people through the streets.

This is all becoming a little too real now. We tell ourselves that such a thing could not seriously take a hold of people in the way it has in the past. Man has learnt the lessons from what has gone before.

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So why is it happening again?

The Stand is an old friend.

I read it every five or six years. I go back to it in the same way one might go back to the place in which you grew up.

My affair with everything apocalyptical probably came from King; well some of it anyway. The landscape of my youth was clouded by the coming apocalypse. But it never came. There was the threat of nuclear war, Aids, over-population, and ISIS (so called), but it has never ended. Neither has my love of The Stand.

I picked up a copy of this book just before the weekend and started to read it once again. Some people never go back to books once they have read them. Some people never review a film once it has been watched. I do both. The mind-readers out there will tell you that it will be connected with my psychological hoarding, a need to never let go of the past. I believe this to be true, as this book testifies. For somebody who can launch into new experiences, whilst leaving behind old ones, I am a strange contradiction.  But there are artefacts that I treasure; books, books, books.

Cornerstone-bookshop

The latest edition of The Stand has new chapters and some new characters. All of these are peripheral to the main events yet they work in a way to freshen up the novel for a new audience. Where King falls down a little is where there are obvious anachronisms that have been born out of temporal revision.

My favourite character, Larry Underwood, a musician about to make it big before Captain Trips seizes his stage. At that time Larry was mixing his tracks with Neil Diamond. Now, I am not one to put Neil Diamond down, but a new audience wouldn’t really know him. If they had heard of him, it would be in the same way that would have heard of somebody once called Noah. I have a student who goes by that name, but he hasn’t got an arc or a zoo. That to one side, the book gripped me once again and I spent huge swathes of the weekend lost in its many pages.

Once again, I was back to the time when I was eighteen, still wet behind the ears, hoping beyond reasonable hope that I would amount to something in life.  I was afflicted with that good old Jesus-Syndrome. Reading, The Stand is like reading me and about all that has happened during the time that I became what I am today.

 

My favourite characters in the book are Larry Underwood and Nick Andros. The latter is a youngish man who can’t speak nor hear. He is very special in the grand scheme of things. Larry, because he is a tragic figure who is haunted by his own doubtful character. He wants to be good but often does bad things. “You ain’t no good guy!” He hears from women, who would have been complete strangers if he hadn’t have slept with them. I like Larry because he is a little bit like I was when I was young, self-centred, hedonistic, and a dreamer. He wanted  to do the right thing in a world which was not right so, he just went along with it and carved out his own little stretch of land where he could hide from his troubles and the eyes of his critics.

 

Larry is an artist who has struggled to be heard properly. He hasn’t had the breaks and when one sashays his way it is blown away by a combination of genetic engineering and the end of days conducted by Randall Flag. Old Randy is the Devil in-definite-carnate. And poor old Larry, and the rest of the world, are swept away by this janitor from Hell. Larry is a guy who has always been good, at heart, but indifferent in actions. The last stand of good against evil is one in which he will play a major role, surprising himself and others with his bravery and selflessness. At the end of it all, Larry is a “good guy” but dies in the process. So, is this Jesus thing in my DNA or has it been placed there by the writers I worship?

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If I was a lawyer, I would possibly say that this particular case ought to go to litigation. Through their poetry and prose, these writers have led me all the way along a narrative that quite possibly would not have been written in the same the way that it has turned out. Or is it that I was always predisposed to this type of existence, and that I chose the literature that best reflected me?

 

Thanks goodness that I never liked Jane Austin – although with zombies it is a lovely treat.

 

King On God

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In the words of Stephen King:

“I’ve always believed in God. I also think that’s the sort of thing that either comes as part of the equipment, the capacity to believe, or at some point in your life, when you’re in a position where you actually need help from a power greater than yourself, you simply make an agreement. ‘I will believe in God because it will make my life easier and richer to believe than not to believe.’ So I choose to believe. … I can also say, ‘God, why did this have to happen to me when if I get another step back, you know, the guy misses me entirely?’ Then God says to me, in the voice that I hear in my head … basically tells me to ‘Get lost, I’m polishing my bowling trophies.’ ”

 

Stephen King On Writing

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If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.

I’m a slow reader, but I usually get through seventy or eighty books a year, mostly fiction. I don’t read in order to study the craft; I read because I like to read. It’s what I do at night, kicked back in my blue chair. Similarly, I don’t read fiction to study the art of fiction, but simply because I like stories. Yet there is a learning process going on. Every book you pick up has its own lesson or lessons, and quite often the bad books have more to teach than the good ones.

When I was in the eighth grade, I happened upon a paperback novel by Murray Leinster, a science fiction pulp writer who did most of his work during the forties and fifties, when magazines like Amazing Stories paid a penny a word. I had read other books by Mr. Leinster, enough to know that the quality of his writing was uneven. This particular tale, which was about mining in the asteroid belt, was one of his less successful efforts. Only that’s too kind. It was terrible, actually, a story populated by paper-thin characters and driven by outlandish plot developments. Worst of all (or so it seemed to me at the time), Leinster had fallen in love with the word zestful.

Characters watched the approach of ore-bearing asteroids with zestful smiles.Characters sat down to supper aboard their mining ship with zestful anticipation.Near the end of the book, the hero swept the large-breasted, blonde heroine into a zestful embrace. For me, it was the literary equivalent of a smallpox vaccination: I have never, so far as I know, used the word zestful in a novel or a story. God willing, I never will.

Asteroid Miners (which wasn’t the title, but that’s close enough) was an important book in my life as a reader. Almost everyone can remember losing his or her virginity, and most writers can remember the first book he/she put down thinking: I can do better than this. Hell, I am doing better than this!

What could be more encouraging to the struggling writer than to realize his/her work is unquestionably better than that of someone who actually got paid for his/her stuff? One learns most clearly what not to do by reading bad prose — one novel like Asteroid Miners (or Valley of the Dolls, Flowers in the Attic, and The Bridges of Madison County, to name just a few) is worth a semester at a good writing school, even with the superstar guest lecturers thrown in.

Good writing, on the other hand, teaches the learning writer about style, graceful narration, plot development, the creation of believable characters, and truth-telling. A novel like The Grapes of Wrath may fill a new writer with feelings of despair and good old-fashioned jealousy — “I’ll never be able to write anything that good, not if I live to be a thousand” — but such feelings can also serve as a spur, goading the writer to work harder and aim higher. Being swept away by a combination of great story and great writing — of being flattened, in fact — is part of every writer’s necessary formation. You cannot hope to sweep someone else away by the force of your writing until it has been done to you.

A Morsel More

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Something else was among them. Its sound, as it planted ancient feet upon the floor, indicated that it walked like a man. Alongside it, ran the first of the notes from a flute.

She recognised the sound as the one that had been in the darkness for sometime now. She had heard it coming from the mobile phones of kids in the street. The first strains had been weak, discordant, and had barely scuttled into the surrounding air before dying, and recoiling.

Over the weeks, she noticed more and more teenagers, decent looking kids mesmerised by their mobiles. And with this, the notes of the flute began to take shape, take to the air and transform themselves into something almost visible. That something, or a fragment of that something, was standing on the other side of her wardrobe door and soon, very soon, she would be able to see what the notes looked like. She waited with the words of her mantra, stuck like pebbles in her throat.

The something’s hand was upon the door handle, its damp palm pressing against the cool metal, its impetus about to push down.

The moment could have lasted forever. Then a current ran through the air; primeval electricity connected each and every particle of her being instantly. The world was frozen, trapped and petrified in an absolute of silence. For that moment, the little girl was able to enter their thoughts. Later, she would remember their cries of despair and exhilaration, hatred and fidelity, anguish and relief. There were so many voices in there, so many emotions and so much conflict. As she pulled herself out from that foul place, she realised that the night carried a howl, a distant rage of pain that cut through her aggressors’ intentions.

For a long while she listened, knowing that they had fled. She waited before resuming her mantra and watching her mind movie. That was until she heard the front door being opened. There was movement downstairs and this was followed by a short cry of pain. The first utterances of a curse was being strangled.

That’s when she decided to move from her hiding place, step slowly down the stairs, and that’s when she saw the boy who was taking the car keys.

He had the look of the gangs. He was wearing tracksuit bottoms, a baseball cap and his hood was pulled up. His movements were furtive and for the briefest time she wished she had not disturbed him.

She had opened her mouth to say, “Hello” and had wished she hadn’t. His eyes shot wide opened, and he stepped back hitting his leg on the hall table.

This time, he did not cry out in pain as his immediate attention had been taken up with the thing that had jumped out of the dark. This time, he just stood there waiting for what he thought would be the painful end to his painfully short life.

When the girl saw this, she spoke out again.

“So, they did not get you?”

Moments passed.

“The rats, they did not get you?”

Eventually, “No…what are you doing here?”

There was nothing in his voice which she recognised. It was defensive, sullen and, most probably, dangerous. Nevertheless, she persisted.

“Those keys are for Mum’s car.”

She thought about her mother and the movie started playing again.

“That’s for Mum’s car. You’ll need Dad’s keys, his car is parked in front of hers. It will block your way out.”

 

Again, the furtive look. He was weighing things up, trying to work out what he ought to do. On the stairs was a girl, whom he reckoned was about eight or nine, and somehow she had survived the thing that had happened. He was starting to wonder how and why when they both heard a low groan coming from the next room.

He didn’t know whether to run away or go to help whatever it was that was making that noise. The girl decided for him. She ran down the last few stairs and straight into the room from where the groan had come. As the door opened, he heard her gasp deeply and then scream.

A scream that would wake the dead.

So he ran after her, not to comfort her, but to shut her up. If he didn’t, then the rats might come back. What he saw in there would stay with him through the coming nights.

There were parts, bits that had once belonged to human beings, strewn around the room. A lampshade had been knocked over, its bulb still throwing a maniacal glare across the scene. The carpet was stained deeply red with what had been the lifeblood of the girl’s family. He clamped a hand across her mouth with a strength that shook her. Her scream bit into his smelly palm, her eyes filed with revulsion and accusation.

“Shut your bloody mouth before they hear you. You don’t want to end up like that do you?”

That was when the moan became a discernable voice. It was a voice that carried with it a name.

“Kate.” 

What was left of her brother, had spoken.

His little sister was drawn to him. She knelt and held a hand that could no longer feel. She looked into her brother’s eyes, bloodstained and drifting between worlds.

“Be careful. The boy is dangerous. He knows them.”

“What boy?”

From the doorway, Joel Podrall spoke.

“What’s he saying?”

Kate ignored the question and asked her own once more.

“Which boy?”

But the connection had been broken. Her brother was dead.

Her head bowed forward dropping tears onto what remained of him. It was as if she had lost him twice and the anger was beginning to build within her tiny frame.

The boy was still standing at the door, seemingly afraid to venture inside. Something told her that this boy was the one she had been warned about. She knew right from the moment she had set eyes upon his form, in the darkness of the hallway, that he was not right, but he was all she had.

She needed him to help her to get out of the city and she had to prove that she could be of use and not just a hindrance. She wiped her tears away with the back of a hand that still held blood.

“He said good bye.”    

A Taste Of Things To Come

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The screams had dissolved. They had petered out into near silent pleas and prayers. She had waited, fixed like a butterfly pinned into a glass case, a recording, playing the only prayer she knew, ran on and on inside her mind.

Lord keep us safe this night

Secure from all our fears…

But they had not been safe, nobody had.

Running alongside the prayer was a film. She called these her mind movies and always played the role of director or leading actress.

In this movie, the one that was now sticking in the place where she least wanted it to stick, she had neither been director nor leading actress. In this movie, she had played the part of the little girl who was not seen, or heard, and the little girl who ran as quietly as she could for the only place she had ever felt truly safe, the back of her walk in wardrobe. From there, she had been able to hear the screams of her mother, father and elder brothers as they had been set upon by an army of rats.

However, she knew that they were not really rats because rats did not offer ultimatums.

With her head pressed to the floor, the little girl, now only just eight, listened with mortified engagement as the sudden smashing of glass, her father’s shouts for the family to run into the next room, her mother’s cries of astonishment and fear, and her elder brothers’ anger were replaced with the submissive sound of near silence. She had strained her ears to pick out anything that may have spoken of hope, but none appeared to be there; none until she heard the note.

At first she thought it had been the sound of somebody hissing and then it had changed into something more soothing. For a moment, the notes of a flute fluttered into the spaces beneath where she lay. Once more, it changed into something closely resembling a caricature of a human voice, one that whistled, grated and cajoled.

“…the way they died…want to suffer…are young…for people like you…join us…die.”

There was a brief pause and then an answer came back from Tim, her eldest brother. Even through the pain and the tears, she knew his tone which was one of defiance.

“…you…rather die…like you.”  

Then the fury increased again and the muffled cries of her brothers were extinguished.

After that, came the time of searching.

She knew that they were scenting the air, following trails, feasting on morsels and glorying in their hour. She froze as she heard feet treading their way up the staircase. They were after more things to do and her scent had caught in eager nostrils. She listened as the footfalls reached the top and then waited for the inevitable.

They picked their way along the passageway, taking it in turns to storm each of the bedrooms. The sounds of ripping, tearing and smashing ensued and she realised that nothing was being left to chance. The prayer arose within her and became a mantra. If she said it enough times, believed its lines, then God might just save her.

The entry of the rats suggested otherwise. They fell upon the room like grave-robbers, intoxicated with triumph.

The feet stopped at the wardrobe door. She was wrapped up in coats, only half hidden, but she prayed. And in this prayer she asked (she knew she wasn’t really supposed to ask God for anything for herself) for a cloak to be thrown around her. She wished for a cloak like the one Harry Potter had, an invisible cloak. If this had been part of a book, she would have been granted one. If God had been watching, he would have thrown down his heavenly threads and woven a garment for her, immediately. God, she wondered with the tiniest fear of being disrespectful, was not watching what was going on. He had not heard the cries of her family and did not see those creatures dressed as rats.

A few feet away, the things hesitated as if drawing out the delicious torment of the scene. The little girl visualised the cloak she was about to pull over herself. It was green with threads of gold woven into it and along the hood were symbols like stars that caught the moonlight and shone it back. She hid, pulled deep within this invention and waited for the end.

Secure from all our fears

If I should die before I wake…

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Changing Over

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The dreams came with the persistence of flies.

The operator in charge of emergency services had been having the same dreams, night after night. These, he believed, had recurred too often to have been a fluke.

In this dream, the city was clean. The normal polluting buzz of the everyday had gone. The city had been cleansed of people and he found only himself walking along roads and streets that would have usually been plagued by a million lives. In this dream, there were no cars, no trains and no aircraft; noise too seemed to have been wiped away. The only sound that he did hear, and this was a distant, barely audible sound, was that of a flute.

The operator had walked towards this flute and each step that he took gave him reassurance and belief. The flute was a voice that was sweet and it knew his name. The voice, its tones hushed and caring, told him of the things that were now at hand. It told him of the cleansing and of those who would stand in its way. It showed him the Kingdom to come and his place in it. Then, and after a long pause, it told him what he must do to earn that place.

As the operator sat amid the growing confusion of emergency calls, he felt fulfilled. His colleagues had all reported sick or had just not turned up for duty. He was alone and he remembered his dream. He would talk to them, tell them that help was coming, lie to them. He would not act upon the calls. Someone else could do that. In what was left of his heart, he understood that nobody would. The only people monitoring the world, as it began its slide away from them, were those that were pledged to the Piper.

What the operator wanted to do more than anything else was sleep.

He wanted to dream.

The Piper had been busy.

 

 

The Leatherman, he that had formerly been James Harrison, woke and moved his creaking limbs.

No muscle powered its movements. That had long since gone.

Before this moment, the dried-out husk had moved only at the behest of the boy. His thoughts, his magic, had brought about the impossible. Now, everything was possible.

On this day, on this new dawn, the Leatherman moved with a volition that came from elsewhere. This tightly bound package of space and impossibility moved because time had foretold that it should do so. The times, they had a changed. And the only tune in town was that played by the Piper.

James Harrison, now the Leatherman, sat upright and surveyed his hands. He turned them over so that he could see his palms. On their ancient surfaces, he thought, and he had not been thinking for so very long a time, he could read his destiny.

In these new thoughts, he also heard the invitations of the flute. Its notes rose towards an urging and they spoke.

The purge had begun.

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